Clipping An Angel's Wings
Do not all charms flySo wrote John Keats. As many idealists and romanticists have done ever since, Keats was putting on his Smock of True Art, levelling his pistol at the 'cold unfeeling heart' of science and plugging away.
At the touch of cold philosophy?
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
Unweave a rainbow...
Once upon a time, many years back, I probably would have leant to the side of Keats. In fact, to this day I sympathise with Keats, and I understand, as only someone who has been on both sides of the fence can, his fear and where it from where it comes.
But these days I disagree in a most profound way with his assessment that philosophy (by which he means science in keeping with the manner of his time), "empties the haunted air" by "unweaving the rainbow".
See, the mistake that Keats makes, and one that I very nearly made in a desire not to lose a sense of mystery from my life, is to think that the intent of science is to explain everything, and by inference, trivilalise it; to pit the marvels of the universe against the measure of man. This is a view of science that is fundamentally and seriously wrong.
Science, as practiced by real scientists, is a tool with which we can examine the universe and make assessments that are not based on the way we would like it to be but on the way that it tells us it is. This is one of the most rigorous intellectual and philosophical challenges that any human can undertake. Religion can't do it, art doesn't feel the need to do it, and capital 'P' Philosophy sits on the fence. Only science seeks to look squarely at the truth and endure its harsh blows.
In a private email about my recent post on homeopathy, a correspondent suggested that I was 'narrow-minded' in my view. I explained that to the contrary, my 'open-mindedness' about homeopathy was what convinced me it was bogus; I once used to think that it should be considered as a complementary medicine (and yes, I even used it myself), but my wide reading about it, my willingness to entertain both sides of the argument, was what led me to doubt its efficacy. I still read about research into homeopathic claims. If someone can give me some substantiation that homeopathy works in the manner in which it is suggested that it does, I promise I will change my mind. But you see, so far no-one has been able to do this. The support for homeopathy is anecdotal and diffuse and minimal at best.
On the other hand, if I want to demonstrate that clonal science effectively keeps millions of people healthy every day, it is a trivial exercise.
Is this any less marvellous, just because we understand exactly why it works?
Keats, like many artists, was afraid that science would strip our world and our lives of mystery. If he had been willing to spend a little bit of his time with science, he might have discovered, as so many scientists have, that the deeper you look into the universe, the more mysterious it becomes.
This does not mean that we need to invoke supernatural beings like gods and demons to explain it. It just puts us in mind of the one thing of which we should always be aware: we are tiny parts of an extraordinarily complex machine of which we know so very little. Only hubris in the form of bad science or bad religion even attempts to suggest that we can understand it all.
And if you want mysteries, try these:
★Why does the number phi (1.61803399...) appear in so many seemingly unrelated places, from plant structure to the event horizons of black holes?No-one knows the answers to these questions. It is possible that someday, we might know something of some of them. But then again, we might not. The crucial thing to understand is that by asking questions about these things, we don't diminish ourselves, or our dreams. And you can be sure, that for every question we answer, another two will arise.
★Where is your conscious self? Where does it go when you fall asleep?
★Do prime numbers occur all the way to infinity?
★Why do we dream?
★Would the universe exist if we weren't here to see it?
★Why do alcoholic drinks retain their aroma longer than non-alcoholic drinks?
★Is the string of numbers in pi completely random forever?
★Will the internet ever become sentient? Would we even know if it did?
★How does memory work?
★Why do normal body cells go berserk and multiply out of control in cancers?
★Why is it that some people can be hypnotized not to feel pain, and some people can't?